Tampa VA covertly recording brain damaged veteran
Photo: Video by fox4now.com
TAMPA - The James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital admits they have been videotaping a brain damaged veteran against his family's wishes.
The Tampa VA says it's necessary but the family calls it an invasion of privacy and says the hospital lied to them about the camera.
On Tuesday, we told you about retired Air Force Staff Sgt. Joseph Carnegie and how he went into cardiac arrest under the hospital's watch last August. He now has severe brain damage and his family plans to sue the hospital.
When Carnegie's daughter, Natalie, visited her father on June 13 her husband noticed something out of place on the ceiling.
"He said honestly it almost looks like a camera," said Natalie. "And I said 'ha ha yeah right.'"
But it was a camera hidden inside a smoke detector. Natalie says it was installed without her permission or knowledge.
"It's not a hidden camera," said the VA's Chief of Staff Dr. Edward Cutolo.
"Then why is it hidden in a smoke detector not out in plain view?," asked Fox 4 reporter Matt Grant.
"I can't comment on why that particular brand of camera was chosen," said Cutolo.
Cutolo says the camera records video, not sound, and is necessary to monitor the 80-year-old Korean War veteran's fragile condition.
"They took him from us," said Natalie's husband Michael Coleman, referring to Carnegie's brain damage. "And then, now, you take his dignity to add insult to injury."
The Tampa VA says it has been using covert cameras for at least five years. But Natalie questions why a camera was installed in her dad's private room in June, a full 10 months after he suffered brain damage, and after it became clear they were going to sue.
"Doesn't it seem like common sense that they would have placed a camera in August, September October, November?," said Natalie. "Come on."
"The intent of the camera was to monitor Mr. Carnegie's well-being," said Cutolo. "I think it's a valuable tool. And also, I think to allay some of the family's concerns."
Natalie says she found out about the camera only after a maintenance worker tipped her off. And even then she says hospital staff lied to her. One nurse told her it was a "sprinkler," she said.
"The privacy officer informed us that there is no way that they will place a camera in your dad's room," said Natalie. "She came up to our room, looked up in the ceiling...and stated that's not a camera."
Except it was. Dr. Cutolo says at least 40 other patients are being monitored and says the families are told ahead of time.
He says since Carnegie's were informed about the camera when it was being installed and before it was activated it's not hidden.
"But the family tells us they were never notified" during or immediately following installation, said Fox 4 reporter Matt Grant.
"We have documentation to prove otherwise," said Cutolo.
But the hospital's own documents seem to back up what Carnegie's family tells Fox 4.
In a report of contact filled out by a nurse on June 13, the day the camera was apparently installed, a nurse writes: "Family upset and requesting information about 'new' device on ceiling. According to patient family, the maintenance man informed them that the device was a camera. Nurse informed family members that she was not aware of situation."
Natalie says the VA came clean the next day, on June 14, after she kept pushing for answers, which the hospital's document confirms.
The hospital says they began recording on June 15.
"I was angry, I was livid," said Natalie. "Our father has a right with his privacy. His privacy is being violated while on camera."
"Is this an invasion of privacy?," asked Grant.
"If the family was informed prior to the activation and during the installation," said Cutolo, "than it was not an invasion of privacy."
But the family feels it is. They've put up signs in Carnegie's room calling the videotaping "unauthorized" and "illegal."
When told about the covert camera, a national spokesperson for Veterans of Foreign Wars, called it "shocking."
"That's not what the VA is all about," said VFW spokesperson Joe Davis. "The VA is not there to sneak around corners. When you find out the VA is doing this to a veteran it's shocking on many levels."
But not as shocking as it was to this veteran's family.
"They continue to take away the dignity and the respect that's left," said Coleman. "And let me tell you this: It would have been served to repeatedly rape us. We would have felt better with that than what they have done with us now."
In an ironic twist, VA police were called to Carnegie's room last month after his 11-year-old grandson and daughter took pictures next to him in the room. The hospital forced them to delete those photos because their rules prohibit cameras.
As for the smoke detector camera, the hospital has agreed to take it down.
Tampa VA Statement
"The use of video cameras has become widespread throughout the medical community in recent years. These devices enable health care providers to monitor patients without having a nurse sit in a room around the clock. Video monitors allow health care providers to give better care to more patients. Although the use of video monitoring has become standard practice in health care, we have made the decision to remove the camera in question and place the patient on one-to-one observation while he remains in our acute care unit. Our focus has been and always will be on providing the very best care to our patients."